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Why Brinksmanship Is a Form of Verbal Abuse

Next to stonewalling, it's one of the most toxic patterns of behavior.

Key points

  • One way of shutting down a discussion is using a threat, veiled or not, to manipulate the other person. This is the essence of brinksmanship.
  • All verbal abuse is about control and power and maintaining both; brinksmanship is no different.
  • When this pattern becomes evident in a relationship, there may be, in truth, little one can do to change it.

“It got to a place when every discussion about our differences of opinion or issues about the future ended the same way. He’d get really quiet and then he’d simply say, ‘Well, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave? I get tired of the same old tattoo.’ Of course, I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to work things out. But when he said that, I’d panic and backtrack, and—believe it or not—end up apologizing for supposedly complaining. It took me a few years to realize how he was controlling me with what was a threat and that it was effective as hell until the day that it wasn’t. And I took him up on it by asking him to move out.”

That was Margaret’s story, and it was one of many I heard while researching my forthcoming book on verbal abuse. I will admit that it was a pattern in my last failed relationship as well, and I have called it “brinksmanship.”

Brinksmanship is a kissing cousin to stonewalling—one of the behaviors most destructive to a relationship, according to marital expert John Gottman—in that it’s a tool of control and manipulation, meant to stun you into silence. And submission. It effectively stops the discussion on a dime, since you can only agree or disagree; you either stay or leave.

Brinksmanship in the family of origin

Parents use brinksmanship as a way of getting kids to toe the line by saying, “If you hate it here, maybe you should move in with a friend. Or maybe you want me to contact social services and find you a foster family.” As outlandish as this sounds, a number of daughters and sons from intact families reported being told this again and again when they voiced disagreement.

Unsurprisingly, while brinksmanship was used often, it usually wasn’t the only form of verbal abuse the child experienced; many reported being ignored, marginalized, laughed at, or given the silent treatment, all of which are forms of verbal abuse. Sometimes, the story was extreme, as was the one James, now 40 and a father himself, shared:

“My father tolerated zero disagreement. And I mean zero. And his threat was never empty. When I decided to quit the baseball team when I was 12, he told me he wouldn’t talk to me again if I did. And, you know what? He didn’t talk to me for three weeks. It was as though some big, sinister magic wand had made me disappear. My little brother, who was 6, was afraid to talk to me and started wetting the bed. And my mother stood by her man. Unreal. It won’t surprise you that I left home at 17 and never looked back. I worked my way through college and law school. And I haven’t spoken to either of my parents in years. Cruel folks.”

It seems that brinksmanship comes up more frequently when parents are divorced; again, it’s a tactic of control and manipulation. Kit, 47, wrote:

“The threat of being sent to live with my dad and his new wife who lived in another state was a constant during my childhood; it was her go-to tool when I displeased her or questioned her. It worked until I was about 13, when I realized she was bluffing because she still resented my father’s leaving her and she had fought hard for full custody so that she’d never let him ‘win’ in that way. She still used brinksmanship but the threats were different, like grounding me for life, not paying for college, and stuff like that.”

But unsurprisingly, the effects on Kit were more long-lasting than she realized at first:

“I didn’t realize until I was married that I had no clue how to argue or talk things through without resorting to brinksmanship myself. Discussion and compromise were skills I had never learned and, thank God, my husband called me out on it. I was lucky because the realization came early in the marriage and the counseling I received allowed me to learn how to argue constructively, without threats. My mother continued to do it to me and then tried doing it to my daughter and son, and I went no-contact about a decade ago.”

What to do if brinksmanship is part of your relationship

If you grew up around verbal abuse, the chances are good that you rationalized or normalized it during your childhood and usually deep into adulthood. When it’s our parents who verbally abuse us, most of us will deny it and look away for as long as possible to avoid the pain of the truth. Alas, these habits of mind make it more likely that you’ll experience verbal abuse in your adult relationships.

Because all verbal abuse is about power and control, the person who uses brinksmanship has to be willing to cede the control it gives him or her or forgo the rush of power that comes with it. He or she has to be willing to talk, discuss, and, yes, compromise, which may be a very tall order. Speak to a qualified counselor and remember that the only person you can change is you.

Copyright © 2022 by Peg Streep

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